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Photo credit: Dirty Dancing cast (Photo by Mark Senior)

'Dirty Dancing' review — a joyful and nostalgic time capsule

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

​​Nobody puts Dirty Dancing in a corner — at least not for long. The stage musical version of the iconic 1987 movie about a ballroom-fuelled summer romance first hit the West End in 2006, returned in 2013, and is now back again, stopping at the Dominion during its national tour. Judging by the hysterical delight of its opening night audience, it'll be a very happy homecoming.

To its credit, this Dirty Dancing — also scripted by the film's creator Eleanor Bergstein — thoroughly understands its audience. While some screen-to-stage transfers make significant changes or updates, this is a firmly sealed time capsule. The result for hardcore fans is a heady rush of nostalgia as you're transported back to your first film viewing. Every line that you loved, every song, every dance step is faithfully re-created. If you want to escape the present (and why wouldn't you), it's irresistible theatrical time travel.

On the other hand, it's a peculiar beast of a stage show. Retaining the movie's exact structure, with lots of short scenes and location changes, makes the action feel rushed. The more intimate moments are lost in the cavernous Dominion, as is the minimal scenery - a backdrop showing New York's Catskill Mountains, a few doors, tables and chairs.

But the key issue, and one that director Federico Bellone never quite solves, is tone. After all, the film contained bracing subject matter: Frances "Baby" Houseman, on holiday with her family at Kellerman's resort in 1963, only agrees to learn a mambo routine with ballroom pro Johnny Castle in order to cover for partner Penny, who needs an illegal abortion. The stage show also beefs up references to the era's political and racial divisions.

Yet the production is knowingly kitsch entertainment. It expects, rightly, that Johnny's swaggering, bad-boy entrance will be met with whoops, that certain lines ("I carried a watermelon") will stop the show, and that the first few notes of the climactic "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" will produce a full audience meltdown. However, the cast mainly plays it straight. You have to feel for Johnny actor Michael O'Reilly, who attempts heartfelt speeches while topless (cue yelps) and then with a flash of bare buttocks (screams). It's like trying to deliver "To be or not to be" during Magic Mike Live.

But the show kicks into high gear during the exhilarating dance numbers. Choreographer Austin Wilks transfers the movie's terrific routines with panache and adds some flashy, rhythmic original sections too, although the titular "dirty dancing" from the staff kids could use fewer high kicks and acrobatic contortions, more sensual connection, so that it's distinct from the formal ballroom.

As Baby, Kira Malou's flat delivery kills the dialogue, but she's a fantastic physical performer - comically awkward in her early lessons, gradually growing into a skilled dancer and also a young woman discovering and owning her body. Her seduction of Johnny, set to "Cry to Me", is seriously steamy, and all the more powerful for being wordless. Likewise, the training montage works like a charm, although the parts set on a log and in the lake are just plain silly.

O'Reilly provides explosive elevation, a fairly successful deep Elvis-esque drawl, and some welcome vulnerability to temper this fantasy creation. As Penny, Carlie Milner uses every inch of her long, long legs, and also lands the dramatic moments. There's good support from Lynden Edwards and Lori Haley Fox as Baby's seemingly perfect parents, Lizzie Ottley as her amusingly brash sister, Thomas Sutcliffe as her smarmy suitor, and Danielle Cato as vampy guest Vivian.

Though the show benefits from the film's peerless soundtrack, it takes an odd approach: some songs are pre-recorded, some performed live, but not by the principals; it's not a classic musical in that sense. Instead, we get the big vocals from Mimi Rodrigues Alves, Samuel Bailey and Colin Charles.

But none of these quibbles will matter a jot to those who just want to see their favourite film played out live, complete with glittering pink signs, lovingly re-created details and the famous end lift. If that's what you're after, you'll definitely have the time of your life.

Dirty Dancing is at the Dominion Theatre to 16 April. Book Dirty Dancing tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Dirty Dancing cast (Photo by Mark Senior)

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